Jews worry Clinton trip could stack deck against Israel

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WASHINGTON — The White House insists President Clinton's precedent-setting trip to Gaza this weekend will not affect the special U.S.-Israel relationship — or mute American concerns about Palestinian violations of the Wye River agreement.

Jewish leaders aren't so sure.

"The good news is that the United States is actively and forcefully engaged," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "The bad news could be that it's hard to balance that kind of mediating role with our traditional pro-Israel orientation.

"There's more talk about `evenhandedness.' There are reports about mirror-imaging the trips to Israel and Gaza, implying that the administration is moving very close to the 50-yard line. And that has produced concern in our community."

At the same time, a broad spectrum of community leaders is rejecting Israeli appeals to pressure the administration to alter Clinton's itinerary — especially because of what some see as the imposition of new conditions on Wye implementation by the Netanyahu government.

The pro-Israel uproar is being fueled by the mounting conflict over core issues such as Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem, and genuine confusion over the

new, closer relations between U.S. officials and the Palestinian leadership.

During Clinton's three-day visit to the Mideast that starts tomorrow night, he will address 1,500 Palestinian officials, including former terrorists, assembled to "confirm" an earlier decision striking out offensive portions of the Palestine Liberation Organization charter.

Israeli officials and some American Jewish leaders, Harris said, "worry that [Yasser] Arafat may feel emboldened because he believes America has shifted closer to his view on many of these issues. Because of that, the trip has taken on much greater meaning."

That echoed the message delivered by Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon in a series of meetings in Washington this week.

Sharon warned against the creation of "false expectations" in the region, and said that the impression of an American tilt toward the Palestinians could intensify the rioting that has erupted throughout the West Bank in recent days.

"I think that one of the dangers now is that the [Palestinian Authority] gets the feeling that they are totally backed by this great democracy," Sharon said. "This feeling creates a situation of more violence."

Initially, Sharon's requests for a meeting with the president were rebuffed, but on Monday Clinton stopped by for a one-hour session with the foreign minister during his meetings with Sandy Berger, the national security adviser.

According to sources here, Berger gave Sharon a tongue-lashing over public grumbling by members of Netanyahu's cabinet over the upcoming visit and suggestions that the prime minister would be happier if Clinton stayed at home.

Sharon increased anxiety in the capital by warning in a speech that Israel might annex sections of the West Bank if Arafat follows through on his threats to declare statehood in May.

Administration officials point out that the visit to Gaza to observe the action on the PLO covenant was promoted by Netanyahu himself during the October summit; the president's visit, they say, does not represent a tacit acknowledgment of Palestinian sovereignty.

But peace-process supporters and opponents alike agreed that the images of Clinton in Gaza will have a huge impact.

"This is the biggest thing that's happened to the Palestinians — a recognition of a real relationship with the United States," said Judith Kipper, co-director of the Mideast program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It represents a fundamental change in their status. I see that as a positive development."

Robert O. Freedman, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and a leading Mideast analyst, said that "the underlying dynamic of Wye is the alienation between Clinton and Netanyahu over the Israeli leader's tactics — and a deepening of the relationship between Clinton and Arafat. That's what we're seeing with this trip. Arafat is doing everything possible to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state; he will use the visit as a de facto U.S. endorsement of the idea."

That explains the fierce reaction by Netanyahu and his government, and the unease expressed by many Jewish leaders, Freedman said.

Despite that discomfort, most Jewish leaders were unwilling to criticize Clinton .

That was evident at a contentious meeting of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations last week. Prodded by Dore Gold, Israel's U.N. ambassador, several participants urged the group to write a letter stressing the community's concern about Arafat's continued incitement of violence and his renewed threats to declare a Palestinian state May 4. But others expressed a reluctance to take on the administration before the trip.

"There was agreement about Palestinian incitement," said one participant, "but there was also concern about seeming to support what seems like the prime minister's unilateral suspension of the Wye agreement. Many of us felt it was inappropriate for us to be publicly raising concerns with the administration when they were doing exactly what the Israeli government had previously called for, and when they were doing everything possible to keep this peace process alive."

Most Jewish leaders agree that a unilateral declaration of statehood would have devastating consequences.

"It would be a deleterious development that could bring the entire region into armed conflict," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, director of ARZA/World Union, North America, formerly known as the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

But, he said, closer relations between Washington and the Palestinians are inevitable if the region is in fact moving toward peace, and if Washington is to play a greater role, as both Israel and the Palestinians have requested

Although the trip was originally planned to be largely ceremonial — a celebration of the Wye agreement — Clinton will now have to resume intensive personal diplomacy to overcome the latest obstacles to the peace process, said Stephen Cohen, an analyst for the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation.

"What the actions of both parties have set up is a continuation of Wye," he said. "This will be `Wye in the Desert,' because each side is exploiting the unclear areas of the Wye agreement to the fullest."

He warned that "opponents of the agreement on both sides will try to make this upcoming trip very unpleasant. That's something the administration has to be prepared for."

That could include Palestinian violence and public expressions of Israeli displeasure at recent administration actions.

Washington observers questioned whether the president, fighting impeachment in the House, will be able to launch another round of intensive personal diplomacy in the coming days.

"You have to believe he will be spending as much time on the phone with his lawyers and political advisers as he will with [Secretary of State Madeleine] Albright and her people," said one Jewish leader Tuesday.

"There are domestic factors that will make his participation in new talks problematic, even though he probably welcomes the trip to the region because it will get him away from the circus on Capitol Hill."